Wisconsin GOP sues Milwaukee mayor over 'get out the vote' effort

The Wisconsin Republican Party is suing Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson. The party's lawsuit filed in Milwaukee County asks a judge to deem the mayor's involvement and promotion of "get out the vote" work called "Milwaukee Votes 2022" to be illegal. The suit also asks the judge to stop the city from helping or coordinating with the project in the future. The mayor's spokesman said the city will strongly fight the allegations.

After FOX6 broke the original story about "Milwaukee Votes 2022" earlier this month, FOX6 filed an open record request asking for the mayor's texts and emails regarding the project.

The debate and lawsuit was sparked after the mayor spoke on Sept. 12.

"We’re doing more. And I’m going to be embracing outreach and engagement through what we’re calling ‘Milwaukee Votes 2022,'" he said at an event marking Disability Voting Rights Week.

Johnson said the effort would include a widget on Milwaukee city web pages – and more.

"Milwaukee Votes 2022 will also have door-to-door canvassers that will be underway, funded by the private sector. Dozens of canvassers will be face to face with eligible voters encouraging them to exercise their right to vote for the November election," added Johnson at the Sept. 12 event.

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson

Hours after that event, the mayor's office said Johnson misspoke – and that the door-to-door work was independent of the city. 

The newly released internal documents, which FOX6 obtained, reveal who is providing the funding. 

Sachin Chheda, a Democratic campaign strategist and former chairman of the Milwaukee County Democratic Party, sent the following text to Mayor Johnson and Johnson's chief of staff, Jim Bohl, on Sept. 2:

"Wanted to let you guys know we have been approved for a $1M grant from the Center for Secure and Modern Elections. The money is coming to the High Ground Institute to support the nonpartisan Milwaukee Votes 2022 Canvass as we discussed. We should set up a meeting next week to give you guys the full update."

Tax records from 2019 show who is on the board of the High Ground Institute, a Milwaukee nonprofit and officially nonpartisan group that says its mission is to "create a stronger, more vibrant Wisconsin."

They include top Democrats:

  • Martha Love, former chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin and current DNC member representing the state
  • Marlene Ott, former chair of the Milwaukee County Democratic Party
  • Democratic consultant Thad Nation

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The tax records list Nation as the executive director of the institute, with the same address as his and Chheda's firm, Nation Consulting.

When contacted by phone, Nation pointed FOX6 News back to Chheda, who he called the project lead.

The records also show Chheda consulting with Jeff Fleming, the spokesman of the mayor, about how to respond to media inquires about who was funding the canvassing.

In one message from Fleming to Chheda, the spokesman wrote, "Getting multiple media requests on where the SSS is coming from for canvassing and outreach. Do you have a suggested answer."

Chheda responded: "Private donors. And foundations."

A further text added: "This program helps us encourage every eligible resident to register, vote, and make their voice heard."

At one point, Chheda provided a suggested statement: "There are nonprofit, nonpartisan groups who are canvassing door to door, funded entirely by civic-minded philanthropists, to encourage Milwaukeeans to vote. The city is neither funding nor receiving funds to canvass, and the mayor is voicing his support for the city's partnership with these nonprofit, nonpartisan groups who are mobilizing voters."

Republicans criticized the relationship. "We are very concerned about what we believe to be an improper relationship between the city of Milwaukee and these nonprofit groups that in reality are very partisan," said Mark Jefferson, Republican Party of Wisconsin.

The Republican Party of Wisconsin filed suit to stop the city's coordination with the outside groups.

"They can turn out Democratic votes all they want. They want to win an election, just like we want to win an election. But it’s unfair for a partisan group to coordinate with the government to try to get a desired outcome," added Jefferson.

Mark Jefferson

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"When you’re talking the ground game, and door-to-door efforts and turning out the vote, a million dollars is an astounding number," Jefferson said of the grant. "When campaigns get expensive, it’s because they are buying TV ads that are expensive."

The mayor's spokesman Jeff Fleming defended Johnson and the city.

"Absolutely no work has taken place from the Mayor’s office that supported candidates or political parties. I have not seen – nor am I aware – of anything that was done that violated the law. The city will strongly challenge the allegations raised in recent lawsuits, and I have confidence the city and the Mayor will prevail."

The parties will be in court in October.